Diocese of Orange may make bid for Crystal Cathedral

A new and intriguing prospect for the Crystal Cathedral emerged Wednesday when the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange said it was considering buying the bankrupt church in Garden Grove and converting it to a Catholic cathedral.

The announcement by Orange Bishop Tod Brown came one day after Chapman University made a $46-million bid for the 40-acre site. The Crystal Cathedral had earlier reached a tentative agreement for a sale and lease-back deal with a real estate developer, subject to approval by U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Robert Kwan.

A sale to the Catholic Church would solve a longstanding problem for the Orange Diocese, which has no central cathedral for its 1.2-million parishioners. It has been planning for more than a decade to build a new, 2,500-seat cathedral in Santa Ana, but has gotten only as far as hiring an architect.


The Crystal Cathedral, designed by the late Philip Johnson, would provide an instant, 3,000-seat architectural landmark at roughly half the $100 million that was previously estimated for the Santa Ana project.

Such a deal, however, presumably would mean the end of the Crystal Cathedral Ministry’s tenure on the site — a hard pill for the founding pastor, the Rev. Robert H. Schuller, and the church board to swallow. The bids by both Chapman University and the real estate developer, Greenlaw Partners, would allow Crystal Cathedral ministries to lease back portions of the site, including the cathedral itself.

The Crystal Cathedral filed for bankruptcy in October citing more than $50 million in debt. Documents related to the case have revealed generous payouts and tax allowances for church insiders and Schuller family members.

A sale to the diocese would be rich with symbolism. Schuller built the Crystal Cathedral as the physical expression of a Space Age ministry that eschewed orthodoxy in favor of a casual worship style and the self-help spirit of “possibility thinking.” It stood in sharp contrast to the sort of dogma and ritual practiced by the Catholic Church.

Outside the Crystal Cathedral on Wednesday, volunteer gardener Fred Schwartz said many of the people with long ties to the Schuller ministry would be disheartened by its conversion to a Catholic church.

“If they saw it today, they’d probably cry,” he said.

Schwartz, 67, who has been attending Schuller’s church l since 1966, held two gallon jugs as he worked through the various flower beds surrounding the cathedral. He said it was a low point now, but predicted it would bounce back.

“I think it will,” he said. “I’m hoping it will.”

Brown said his diocese is merely exploring the possibility of a deal and has not decided whether to make a bid. The bishop asked a law firm and lay advisors to look into the matter.

“While we continue to develop plans for a cathedral in Santa Ana, it is prudent to evaluate the opportunity to engage in the pending auction of this property and to mitigate the chance that it cease to function as a place of worship, if acquired by others,” Brown said.

Numerous groups have been sending out feelers about buying the Crystal Cathedral property, according to the ministry’s bankruptcy lawyer, Marc Winthrop. Regarding the Catholic diocese, he would only say: “We might be interested.... If something formal is presented, the church will respond.”